Check out this award-winning image of a fungus turning a fly into its “zombie” slave

Check out this award-winning image of a fungus turning a fly into its “zombie” slave

The story of a conquest: The fruiting body of a parasitic fungus sprouts from the body of its victim.
Enlarge / The story of a conquest: The fruiting body of a parasitic fungus sprouts from the body of its victim.

The striking photograph above vividly captures the spores of a parasitic “zombie” fungus (Ophiocordyceps) as they burst from the body of a host fly in exquisite detail. No wonder he won the 2022 BMC Ecology and Evolution Image Contest, featured alongside eight other honorees in BMC Ecology and Evolution magazine. The winning images were chosen by the magazine’s editor and senior members of the magazine’s editorial board. According to the magazine, the competition “provides ecologists and evolutionary biologists with an opportunity to use their creativity to celebrate their research and the intersection between art and science.”

Roberto García-Roa, an evolutionary biologist and conservation photographer affiliated with the University of Valencia in Spain and Lund University in Sweden, took his award-winning photograph while hiking in the Peruvian jungle. The fungus in question belongs to the Cordyceps family. There are over 400 different species of Cordyceps fungi, each targeting a particular species of insect, be it ants, dragonflies, cockroaches, aphids or beetles. Consider Cordyceps an example of nature’s own population control mechanism to ensure that the ecological balance is maintained.

According to Garcia-Roa, ophiocordiceps, Like its zombifying relatives, it infiltrates the host’s exoskeleton and brain via airborne spores that attach to the host’s body. Once inside, the spores sprout long tendrils called mycelia that eventually reach the brain and release chemicals that turn the unlucky host into the mushroom’s zombie slave. The chemicals force the host to move to the most favorable location for the fungus to thrive and grow. The fungus feeds slowly on the host, sprouting new spores throughout the body as a final indignity.

Those buds burst, releasing even more spores into the air, which go out to infect more unsuspecting hosts, what García-Roa calls “a conquest shaped by thousands of years of evolution.” Board member Christy Anna Hipsley praised García-Roa’s winning photograph for its “depth and composition that conveys life and death simultaneously, a matter that transcends time, space and even species. The death of the fly gives life to the fungus.”

The winners and runners-up in individual categories are listed below.

Winner: Relationships in Nature

Gone with the berry.  Flying Under the Influence: A Waxwing feasts on fermented rowan berries.
Enlarge / Gone with the berry. Flying Under the Influence: A Waxwing feasts on fermented rowan berries.

This image of a Bohemian Waxwing (bombycilla garrulus) feasting on fermented rowan berries is the work of ecologist Alwin Hardenbol, a postdoc at the University of Eastern Finland. According to Hardenbol, the birds love the berries so much that they will migrate to wherever the berries are most abundant, not just Finland, but also Western, Eastern or Central Europe. Waxwings can eat twice its own weight in rowan berries in a single day. Birds gain sustenance, and berries disperse their seeds.

However, “while this relationship is highly beneficial for seed dispersal, it comes at a cost to birds,” Hardenbol said. “As the berries become overripe, they begin to ferment and produce ethanol which intoxicates the Waxwings, sometimes leading to problems for the birds, even death. Unsurprisingly, the Waxwings have evolved to have a liver relatively large to deal with his involuntary alcoholism.

Runner-up: Relationships in the Wild

Trachops &eri;  Tungara.  A bat locates its dinner by tuning into a frog's transmission to attract a mate.
Enlarge / Trachops & Tungara. A bat locates its dinner by tuning into a frog’s transmission to attract a mate.

Alexander T. Baugh, a behavioral biologist at Swarthmore College, took this image of a hungry fringed-lipped bat (tracoops cirrhosis) feasting on a male tungara frog (Physalalamus pustular) at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. Bats’ hearing is fine-tuned to detect frogs’ low-frequency mating calls, pitting natural and sexual selection against each other. And if their frog prey turns out to be of the poisonous variety, the bats’ salivary glands can neutralize toxins from the skin.

Winner: Biodiversity Under Threat

The Baobab tree.  The relationship between a group of African elephants and a baobab tree is strained as drought strikes.
Enlarge / The Baobab tree. The relationship between a group of African elephants and a baobab tree is strained as drought strikes.

Samantha Kreling of the University of Washington captured a trio of African elephants sheltering from the sun under a large baobab tree in Mapungubwe National Park, South Africa. The baobab tree has evolved to thrive in extremely dry climates by storing water in its trunk when drought strikes. The elephants, in turn, can dig into those trunks to get water to drink.

The image shows visible marks where elephants have stripped the bark in search of precious water. Historically, baobab trees have healed quickly from this type of damage, but climate change has brought more droughts and elephants have stripped the bark faster than the trees can heal. The editorial board felt that this image “highlights the need for action to prevent the permanent loss of these iconic trees.”

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